Is banning racist groups democratic?

France’s plans to ban far-right group after attack underscores conflict between stability and freedom of association.

Revolutionary Nationalist Youth (Jeuness
The French government plans to dissolve the far-right group Revolutionary Nationalist Youth [AFP/Getty images]

On June 5, 18-year-old anti-fascist activist Clement Meric was walking with his friends in Paris when he encountered a group of far-right militants and a fight broke out. At the end of the skirmish, Meric lay on the ground. He was hit twice in the head, declared brain-dead at the hospital and died the next day. 

His attackers are believed to have links with the far-right Revolutionary Nationalist Youth. The French government has not only arrested the perpetrators, but has also gone one step further by announcing plans to dissolve the group. Painting on an even larger canvas, the government declared that this ban will take place in the context of a review of “extreme right groups that provoke racial, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and homophobic hatred”. 

French law allows the government to ban groups without oversight from courts or the legislature. This procedure dates back to the 1930s, when far-right militias roamed the streets and undermined the stability of the French state. As of 1972, the government has also been able to disband groups that provoke discrimination, hatred, or violence against people because of their origin, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion. 

From an American perspective, this law and the current steps against the Revolutionary Nationalist Youth are difficult to understand. The US has long had active racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan whose members have been associated with violent acts. However, Americans believe that one should punish the criminals, not criminalise freedom of association, no matter how outrageous the group’s ideas may be. 

Americans are fairly unusual in this respect. Many countries permit authorities to outlaw racist groups. Some, like France and Italy, have provisions for the dissolution of private groups. Others, like Germany and the Netherlands, also allow political parties to be banned – a highly contentious step for any self-declared liberal democracy. 

Why do these countries endorse such a controversial infringement on freedom of association? Most places that allow it have had first-hand experiences as non-democracies – experiences they are keen not to repeat. France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, for example, go much further than the US, Britain and Australia in permitting their states to outlaw racist groups and parties. 

History matters, and it continues to motivate French leaders to this day. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared in vivid fashion last week that he was ready to “cut to pieces… fascist and Nazi-inspired movements”. For his part, Interior Minister Manuel Valls stated, “We will be merciless with those that deny the values of the Republic”, and asserted that France has to “attack the foul ideas that remind us of the worst hours of our history”. 

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For some, these steps are not as much about history as they are about symbolic politics. When extreme hatred and violence spills out into the streets, citizens want action. Banning a group sends an immediate signal that the government is doing something. 

As sceptics are quick to argue, though, simply declaring a racist group or party defunct is not always effective. Sometimes the leaders of these associations simply recreate the group under another name. Or activists may go underground and meet in secret. 

This can happen, but France has the power to punish the revival of a banned racist group with seven years in jail and a 100,000-euro ($132,819) fine. Evidence from Germany demonstrates that following waves of bans, the number of racist groups drops over the short-term (but not the long-term), and that the total number of people willing to affiliate with racist right-wing groups also declines over the long-term. 

In short, bans can be effective tools for inhibiting rabid racist groups. 

The greater concern involves the frequency with which states apply the bans. Happily, so far, they have tended to use these laws sparingly. Since 1936, France has outlawed fewer than 100 groups. Many of the highest-profile bans occurred in the 1930s, during the Algerian war, and surrounding the events of May 1968, because the groups involved were identified as dangerous militias. In recent decades, the bans have been used quite infrequently, with only a handful of groups dissolved in the past decade.

Since the 1972 amendment to the law, however, provocation to racial or religious hatred has played a greater role in decisions about which groups to ban. In 2006, France dissolved the Tribu Ka, a small anti-Semitic group with a goal of “putting the people called ‘black’ at the top of humanity”. In 2012, the state disbanded an association dedicated to establishing sharia law in France.

These groups, like the Revolutionary Nationalist Youth, are ethno-centric and associated with violence. Governments have the right to enforce laws enacted by elected legislatures to dissolve groups that are a pressing threat to social and political stability. 

But there is always a risk that states will turn to these laws for a seemingly quick solution to racist violence. These provisions serve a useful purpose, but they come at a cost. They infringe the core liberal democratic norm of allowing people to express their values. 

So if France is going to ban the Revolutionary Nationalist Youth, it has to show its citizens and its neighbours that the group deserves to be banned. France must remember its history, but it must also preserve its liberal democratic credentials for the future.

Erik Bleich is a professor of political science and the director of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, and is the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, published by Oxford University Press.

Follow him on Twitter: @ErikBleich1